May 25, 2018
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Chirping fire alarm tests patience

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

I knew this day eventually would come, but I always thought it would be while Dustin was on deployment. Every morning while Dustin was away, I’d wake up and stare at the faint, blinking light on the fire alarm fixed to the highest point of the vaulted ceiling above our bed and wonder, “How will I replace that battery when it dies?”

The blink seemed to taunt me. Often I imagined that its pattern had quickened. (Did this mean the battery was low?) Then, just as suddenly, the blink would slow down again. (And what exactly did that mean?)

As far as I could tell, if the battery died while Dustin was away, the only reasonable solution would be for me and the kids to move to a hotel until he got back. That’s how much I feared the fire alarm in the vaulted ceiling. Because you know what happens when a fire alarm’s battery dies: It chirps as erratically as it used to blink and always in the middle of the night. The chirping continues until the battery is replaced. And for an alarm on a vaulted ceiling above a bed, that involves moving furniture and getting a 6-foot ladder.

So I watched, and I waited. But the battery never died while Dustin was gone. It died last week, when Dustin was home and waiting to do a fantasy football draft.

We heard the first chirp while we were in the kitchen. I prayed it was coming from the hallway or the basement. Those alarms are easy to fix. But the faintness of the sound made my cheeks turn cold: The chirp was coming from upstairs.

It’s always hard to find the chirp once it begins. The sound is so quick and seems to come from all directions at once. One person is positive it’s coming from a bedroom; another is sure it’s coming from the basement. And so begins a dance that would confuse any extraterrestrial aliens spying on us more than our habit of following four-legged animals with a plastic bag full of excrement. Everyone runs to where they think the sound is coming from. Then, when the chirp happens again, they run to a new spot. And they wait, staring at the ceiling.

Chirp! Everyone changes places again.

Suddenly I heard Dustin’s voice coming from upstairs: “Oh no. Not that one.”

It was important I put our youngest son to bed so he’d be asleep and less distracting when Dustin did his fantasy football draft. So I cheerfully offered to take care of that while Dustin figured out the fire alarm. Except, Lindell’s room is directly across from ours, so the commotion of the chirps plus the clanking of the metal ladder and the sound of Dustin moving furniture was in the periphery as I read aloud a calming bedtime story.

“And then Flat Stanley became as flat as a pancake,” I said, flipping the page.

Chirp. Clank. Squeak.

Dustin came very close to saying not-so-nice words under his breath as he teetered on the top step of the ladder and tried to reach the fire alarm.

“How do you think Flat Stanley will get round again?”

Chirp. Clank. Squeak. Grunt.

Then Dustin appeared in Lindell’s doorway smiling.

“I did it,” he said. “All fixed.”


Dustin’s face went flat. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

This is annoying facts of the world No. 1: The new fire alarm battery never works the first time you put it in.

Dustin climbed the ladder again while I read more to Lindell. Dustin was panicking now about missing his draft. He made more noise as he stomped up the ladder.

Ten minutes later, as Dustin was walking down the stairs, satisfied with his work.


“No!” he screamed and ran back up again.

He tried different batteries. Maybe that first one was bad. Every time he thought he had fixed it, the alarm chirped again. All the while, I read calmly to Lindell across the hall.

Dustin was still going up and down the ladder and muttering under his breath by the time Lindell was asleep. I came into the room to see if I could help. Not that either of us expected I actually could, but it’s nice to offer. Dustin was sweaty. His face was red. The ladder wobbled beneath him as he reached for the alarm … again.


Suddenly, I realized the noise was not coming from the ceiling, but from the floor, where we have a First Alert carbon monoxide detector plugged into an outlet. On it’s screen were the letters B-A-T-T L-O-W.

“Oh, it’s this thing,” I said breezily, already removing the old battery and replacing it with a new one.

Dustin stared down at me from the ladder. “Excuse me?”

And that’s when I knew that, in hindsight, I probably could have handled this after all while he was gone.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at

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